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Onward, Christian Soldiers
Chinese missionaries are winning souls across the Middle Kingdom—and plan to spread even farther

By Sarah Schafer

For Full Story, Go To MSNBC

May 10 issue – When they praise the Lord, they close the windows. In a packed classroom in China ‘s southern Henan province, 35 young Christians stand behind their desks singing the Hallelujah prayer. These students have pledged the next three years of their lives to this illegal seminary, one of the many run across China by members of the Chinese Protestant underground. Tucked away in a two-story apartment donated by a fellow believer, these future preachers study, eat and sleep together, girls in one room, boys in another. If the students want to leave the school, they must do so one or two at a time, at night, so as not to make the neighbors suspicious. They often go weeks without venturing outdoors. After the last Hallelujah, they open the windows.

The movement now has a momentum of its own. Centuries after Westerners flocked to the Middle Kingdom in search of souls, Chinese missionaries have taken over from their Western mentors and are proselytizing directly. And for the first time, they are making serious plans to spread the good word beyond their borders. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world in the last 20 years,” says Daniel Bays , a historian of Chinese Christianity at Calvin College in Michigan .

Meanwhile, under-ground churches are expanding with lightning speed. Some of these groups oppose all state controls. Others are willing to register, but the government won’t accept them. Faced with the accelerating growth of so-called house churches, the government has cracked down hard—bulldozing many of them and increasing the number of arrests.
In January the government arrested Xu Yongling, a top leader in the movement to evangelize abroad. Last June, a group of underground Christians in Guangxi province who had applied to register were summoned by the authorities to finish the final steps of the application process. They arrived with all their paperwork completed and notarized, only to be arrested on the spot and sentenced to re-education camps. The government eventually released them, but there are scores of examples of others who have been similarly duped and not as lucky.

Yu Jie, a 30-year-old Christian, intellectual and activist, also worries that his country’s evangelists focus too much on collecting souls and not enough on pushing for political change. Yu converted to Christianity a year ago partly because he was convinced, as are many Chinese intellectuals, that the movement could help hasten democratic reform in China , as it did in the former Soviet Union and Poland . “Every day there are human-rights violations [in China ], but very few Christians are standing up and doing something,” says Yu. “Christians should do more to organize peaceful protests, to encourage and mobilize others. I think this is more important than converting people. The numbers could be huge, but if they do nothing, it’s meaningless.”

Yu and his wife have organized a 30-member house church in Beijing ; its mission is to raise the social consciousness of Christians across the country—sometimes at great risk to themselves. His members have begun work on an underground magazine that will feature articles by prominent Chinese writers, scholars and artists who have converted to Christianity—many of whom will declare their faith publicly for the first time in the inaugural issue due out before Christmas. In December, Yu plans to visit one of the nation’s hotbeds of Christianity in Zhejiang province to lecture budding missionaries on the historical role of Christianity, and he’s also trying to raise money for a documentary on the subject. Yu says the government taps his phone and monitors his e-mail, but the surveillance doesn’t frighten him. “I have more confidence now, whereas before [I converted] I was afraid of being persecuted,” Yu says. “Now that I’m a Christian, I know my faith will enable me to overcome the torture I might face in prison.”

It’s that kind of bravery that terrifies the Communist Party. It sees the Protestant and Catholic churches, in part, as responsible for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe . The party quickly crushes any movement that is a potential threat to its power, especially if it organizes people from different social or geographic backgrounds. Falun Gong leader Li Hongzhi did just that when he mobilized thousands of his followers to gather near Tiananmen Square in 1999. Beijing responded by violently cracking down. Now that the Falun Gong has been virtually wiped out on the mainland, Christians are one of the biggest threats in terms of sheer numbers and organization.

A flourishing church could solve a lot of problems for China ‘s leaders—in some places officials look the other way as churches open orphanages, elder-care homes and other badly needed services. But even if Beijing doesn’t allow real religious freedom, Chinese Christians will continue to spread the word, at home and abroad.

With Craig Simons in Hong Kong